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Breaking Through – Say Uncle…?

Earlier this week, Owen Turtenwald wrote a piece about some of the things he would have liked to have heard when coming up through the ranks. In it, one of his points was to never audible. Having been someone who has been on both sides of that conundrum before, today I would like to go into his points in a little bit greater of detail and examine the deck choosing process specifically.

I am usually in a pretty unique spot when it comes to deck selection before a big tournament. Due to the nature of my building process and my choice in decks, I typically need to put in significantly more time into deckbuilding and refining as there is rarely a basis for my work. As a result, I often have a ton of man-hours put into a few different decks prior to a tournament. However, sometimes, even most of the time, the decks I am working on feel a little under-prepared for the entire metagame or have a weakness that I have just not been able to solve as of yet.

These are not generally due to some inherent flaw in the deck as a general concept, but rather a lack of quality time put in to smooth out all of the wrinkles. This happens despite dedicating a lot of time to the decks for a few reasons:

1- I need to be simultaneously working on multiple decks, which detracts from the total time put into each. If you go head first all in on a single deck, that deck can very well end up coming up short and you have lost weeks of preparation

2- Again, a lack of a basis for much of what I work on means a lot more time figuring out the ground level mechanics. Things like a mana base rarely are the reason to stop playing a deck, yet you need to make sure they are near perfect before moving on to fix the rest of the kinks out of fear of the fact that perhaps those mana issues are in fact the bigger issue, even though that is often not the case.

So, as a result of all of this, there comes a time in every rogue deck builder’s tournament preparation where he must make a crucial decision; Stay the course and play the not-perfectly-tuned deck you have been working on, or jump ship and play something a little more convention, tried, and true. Conventional wisdom agrees with Owen on this topic and says that audibling is just a bad idea, but what if the brew you have been working on has been on the decline for a while now and it continues to fail to impress. Should you just willingly walk into battle with a Nerf gun? Or is it OK to say uncle and make the switch?

This particular decision faces many deck builders for a large percentage of there tournaments and it is pretty tricky because you end up walking a multitude of thin lines that all criss cross each other and ultimately paint you in a certain way. Consider the fallacies that you might fall into, and keep in mind that many of these are in direct conflict with one another, but they all could be used to punish you later on. Essentially, they fall into two camps.

“You are a pet decker.”

We are told time and time again by anyone who has a column on just about any site that falling in love with a deck is a bad idea. Ultimately, this obsession if you will leads to skewed results and an unhealthy bias that disrupts your chances at winning. If you stay strong and commit to the deck you have been working on for so long, you run the risk of not only being labeled this, but potentially actually doing it.

“Don’t audible.”

Owen had a very valid point in his article and yet it directly conflicts with the previous point. Here, you realize that your deck of choice is just not cutting the mustard and you need to man up and switch to a real deck. On the one hand, you are admitting your mistakes and breaking a very difficult cycle to find yourself in, but on the other hand, you just switched decks a few days before the tournament and run the risk of playing your new deck badly, even if it is the best deck in the format. The traps are already becoming apparent.

Alright then, problem identified, but how do we manage to avoid such a predicament? Many of the steps that a dedicated builder needs to take to prevent this from happening occur well before the actual decision point comes up. Unfortunately, what these steps do entail is a little bit of an extra workload on your part as a builder, but that is something that every builder already has to be willing to sacrifice to be any good at his craft.

Workin’ 9 to 5

This might seem pretty obvious as a solution here, but I would be willing to bet that the majority of Magic players, let alone deck builders, actually do any type of scheduling for their playtesting beyond “hey lets get together and test.” As someone who wants to be focusing on their own brew though, you need to know when the key moments during your testing are so that you can make your deck choice a little easier.

Let’s say you begin testing 1 month prior to an event. You need to be willing to set a hard and fast date say 1 week prior to the tournament as a buffer zone. If your projected deck is not meeting expectations, it is at this date that you drop the deck altogether and move on to your plan B. It is easy to stick to the date, what isn’t easy is getting someone to admit that the deck isn’t meeting expectations, since those are subjective. Be honest with yourself here, because you are honestly only hurting your own chances by not doing so.

Your scheduling should probably also include specific dates that you would like to work on things and have other benchmarks along the way as well, but the general gist is to keep you on track so you know how much time you have to get your act together. Without something pushing you along a track, you tend to get up to the night before the tournament and are still without a clue as to what you are going to be playing.

Know Thy Enemy

Another tactic that rarely gets used but probably should is to specialize your gauntlet. In general, the way most people test is that they take their brew and begin bashing it against all comers. Maybe they get to play against a specific match up when they want, but in general, it is just against anyone who is willing to play those decks (the actual person, not the archetype). Instead of going through testing like that, as a deck builder, you can use this time to insure yourself for the tournament.

First of all, you should already be playing some games with the gauntlet decks against someone else piloting your deck. If you aren’t start off by incorporating that into your routine. Secondly, if you are testing with a group, chances are you are just playing some games with the gauntlet against their deck of choice to return the favor of them providing that service to you. So far all of that is good, but now you need to take it a step farther.

Rather than just always playing whatever random deck from the gauntlet is open, specialize in one. By this I mean to select one that you feel best suits your play style and you will enjoy most and focus on running that during the games as the house. For example, let’s say you are a fan of Valakut. Whenever someone wants to play against Valakut, you should volunteer to play the house for them and get your battles on. While you are still only actively working on your brew, your gauntlet games are going to now be heavily skewed with Valakut as opposed to a smattering of games with every deck, like Boros, RUG etc. This allows you to effectively specialize in Valakut so that when the decision comes to either stand fast on your brew of choice or move off on to another deck, you have managed to put in a ton of time with a solid tier 1 deck. Now you have a comfortable audible despite not really putting in dedicated time to the archetype.

Again, we are looking to best manage our time by doing this. You will be running against and with the gauntlet anyway, so you may as well be using this time to formulate a back up plan. Obviously the most important thing here is to choose a deck that you feel comfortable with playing as your specialized deck so that your audible is that much more in tune with a legitimate shot at winning.

Burning Bridges

While both of those tips were to help a player audible correctly, there are also things to do to restrict your ability to audible. Typically when an audible is made, it is made out of fear in some form or another and a lack of confidence. Luckily, very few of us play this game by ourselves in some sort of lame vacuum and your friends are at your disposal for moral support here.

It may seem stupid or simple, but just asking for their help in keeping you honest and restricting your ability to audible will benefit you immensely if that is indeed your end goal. One of the reasons we audible is that we get anxious or nervous and our natural response is to switch. This happens a lot in other applications, similar to buyer’s remorse. Basically, at one point in time we were all excited about the prospect, but as the time approaches where it nears reality, we get cold feet. It may seem weird at first, but honestly just ask your friends for help. They shouldn’t have a problem keeping you honest and meeting your goal. You obviously need to make the commitment on your own, but they can help you succeed with it.

Bring ‘Em Both

Assuming you went through the process of making sure you were prepared with at least 1 additional backup deck, there is always the option of bringing both decks to the tournament, having both registered, and then choosing when you have as much information as possible. Usually, when you are scared to play a certain deck you have been working on for some time, it is because the metagame may be hostile to it in some way. If you are well enough versed with both your decks and went ahead and gave yourself a week buffer as mentioned before to learn the back up deck properly, you may as well bring both lists just in case the field looks like it is light on your kryptonite. While this is not really a step toward preparing for the audible or not, it is a valid option that many people skip out on, likely due to card availability.

Getting Personal

Typically I don’t follow a set guideline on whether or not to audible and play it by ear for each individual tournament. I have used some of those tactics in the past though and to good effect. For this particular tournament, the SCG Open Series in L.A., I am sticking to my guns and piloting an off-the-wall deck that I have been working on for over a month. I am fully aware that it may not be the best deck, but it is very viable and Owen was spot on when suggesting that familiarity with a deck is just as important as the raw power level might be.

Hopefully things work out for me and I get some favorable matchups etc. but even if they don’t another lesson quickly becomes relevant. Having remorse over the deck you play is not very healthy. You can acknowledge that you made the wrong choice and learn from it, but you cannot beat yourself up about it for too long of a time period. If you do, your confidence level in choosing a deck begins to drop and you run the risk of hurting future performances. Bad deck choices happen, just like good ones do, but you need to take the two together and know that there’s always another tournament and always another deck to rock. Thanks for reading.

Conley Woods

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